February 11, 2003

Open Source in Mexico - Part One

- By Robin 'Roblimo' Miller -
I spent most of last week attending CONSOL 2003 [English translation] in Mexico City. It was a lovely conference, heavy on technical and advocacy discussion and light on marketing hype. It reminded me of U.S. Linux gatherings back in 1997 and 1998. Indeed, the Open Source movement in Mexico in general seems to be five or six years behind the U.S. right now, but it's catching up fast.

This was the second CONSOL. About 500 people were there, up from approximately 300 who attended the first version in 2002. It was held at (and partially sponsored by) the Universidad
Pedagógica Nacional
[UPN - English]. There were over 120 different roundtable workshops, discussions and speeches (including one by this reporter ) over the course of four days (Feb 5 - 8), starting at 9 a.m. and running to 9 p.m. daily. Organizing all of this was a gargantuan task, much of which fell on the shoulders of Gunnar Wolf [English], a sysadmin at the nearby Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México [UNAM - English], which graciously gave him a month's paid leave to help organize the conference.

Miguel de Icaza: the Godfather of Open Source in Mexico

Wolfrano, the affable young conference volunteer who picked me up at the airport when I arrived, told me he had first been turned on to Linux and Open Source by his cousin Miguel, and that he had then spread the gospel to assorted friends.

Gunnar says Miguel also helped to spur CONSOL's organization.

"When we were talking about starting this conference, Miguel was already in Boston but was back visiting," Gunnar recalls." He said we needed a conference, that we needed to get moving. You know how Miguel can be -- quite persuasive."

Miguel was at UNAM before he moved to Boston to help start Ximian. If Open Source is a virus, then the source of it as an infection in Mexico can be traced directly to Miguel de Icaza.

Miguel's major CONSOL presentation at 2:30 on Saturday, Feb 8, was the most popular one at the whole conference. It filled the main UPN auditorium to the point where people were sitting in the aisles. His subject matter, which revolved around Mono and working with Microsoft's .NET, raised some eyebrows and hackles, but he is still the Main Man (and unquestionably the initial infection vector) for Free and Open Source in Mexico.

Why the Universidad Pedagógica Nacional supports Open Source

Its a story we've heard before: A third-world educational institution that simply can't afford to pay first-world software licensing fees to Microsoft and other proprietary software vendors.

Universidad Pedagógica Nacional's Director, Marcela Santillán, says, "We want to move away from Microsoft."

This is a financial decision: The University is in a budget squeeze and is spending 500,000 pesos (over US $50,000) per year on Windows licenses over and above a grant they have from Intel that supplies some Microsoft software. There is also the fear of licensing problems and piracy accusations -- and stiff penalties -- if generous students or faculty member share proprietary programs with one another despite licensing terms that say they should not act in a good-hearted fashion toward software-short colleagues.

Santillán is also looking beyond the University to Mexico's public education system as a whole. She is, after all, in charge of the country's main teacher training college. She sees not only the license fees her institution is paying, but 16 million pesos (over $1,600,000) per year going to Microsoft that could be used to pay teachers or otherwise improve educational opportunities for students in some of Mexico's poorer regions.

"We want to teach more about Linux and Software Libre," she says, "and spread it more through the schools, but training and support are required."

Universidad Pedagógica Nacional is starting to teach the use of Linux and Open Source through volunteer instructors, including Santillán's son Edgar, a mathematician and Open Source developer. But she says many more Linux-skilled teachers will be needed before Linux and Open Source can become the standard in Mexican schools. The University's conference sponsorship is part of her effort to develop this cadre; an act of evangelism, you might say.

The evangelism is just beginning

Open Source in Mexico is still a movement in its infancy, looked upon by most business people and government higher-ups as something that is only interesting to computer science students and computer hobbyists.

But this attitude is changing rapidly. I spoke to Open Source advocates and software business people who are busily spreading Linux and Open Source in Mexico -- and in some cases earning a good living in the process.

I'll have more on the people who are spreading Open Source in Mexico in Part Two and Part Three of this three-part series.


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